Sylvia Luke: First Woman Speaker?

Joe Souki celebrated his 81st birthday recently. He looks good and he sounds good. And he can obviously still do the math. Earlier this year, he rode a coalition of dissident Democrats and seven minority Republicans into the House Speakership, ousting Calvin Say and reclaiming the job Souki previously held from 1992 to 1999.

But still, Speaker Souki is 81, and even given Hawaii’s tradition of super-annuated political leadership, talk of Souki’s successor has begun.

Rep. Sylvia Luke’s name is invariably mentioned.

And well it should be. Luke spent this past session chairing the House Finance Committee, historically the place where future speakers prepare to wield the gavel – both Say and Souki among them. She acquitted herself well, bringing in a budget on time, in sync with the Senate, and saying “no” or “less” as often as “yes” to Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s requests.

Luke denies any over-weening ambition to become the first female Speaker of the House. “I didn’t think I even wanted to do Finance,” she says. “But the caucus asked, and I thought I could do it.”

Whenever Souki steps aside, the majority caucus could ask again, this time if she would consider becoming speaker.

“There are so many talented people in the Legislature who could step up to that position,” Luke insists. “It would be unfair to all of them if there were some predetermined heir apparent to Speaker Souki.”

Born in Seoul, Korea, Sylvia Eun Jung Chang’s parents immigrated to Hawaii, where their daughter attended public schools and the University of Hawaii. In 1995, Luke received her law degree from the University of San Francisco, and three years later won election to the Hawaii state House of Representatives.

Luke acknowledges that “14 years ago my friends and I were a lot more intolerant and arrogant.

We were impatient, and we didn’t have an appreciation for different positions.”

In 2004, Luke and Rep. Scott Saiki went into opposition within the House Democratic caucus.

“I’d characterize the dissidents as policy wonks,” says Luke. “We weren’t necessarily out to gain positions.”

They didn’t gain many over the next eight years, challenging Speaker Say during every House reorganization.

Luke argues that her legal training helped her weather her years as a dissident:

“I’m a litigator. I go to court, battle, win or lose, and move on. As a dissident legislator, I tried to make the best of it by dealing issues on their substance, not on personalities. The legislative majority will always benefit from events, but even in opposition, I think I was a productive legislator.

“At age 30, I envisioned being in the Legislature for 10 years, and by 40 I’d be practicing my profession full time. I’m 46 years old and I’m still here. I wouldn’t be if I didn’t think I was effective.”

Republicans as well as Democrats have praised Luke’s stewardship of the Finance Committee. That praise may well result from her conviction, at 46, “that every elected legislator, Democrat or Republican, a member of my faction or another, is there to represent her district and be effective. True power is shared power, and I’m convinced that a good leader has to let go of some control.”

Luke will spend part of her summer on a baseball vacation. She, husband Michael and 10-year-old son Logan will visit another National League city with the San Francisco Giants, as they have for each of the last three years.

Back in Hawaii, there will be work as well. Luke will gather her committee to look at special funds and the practice of raiding them to pay for other, unrelated state programs.

“Some of those funds made sense in the beginning,” says Luke, “but 30 years later?”